Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Adventures in 1990s house-sitting continued: Ant Attack (and angst attack)

Actually S.’s rabbit was not such a traumatic experience – the subsequent ant attack, which this blog post was supposed to be about…came closer to being the last straw, the thing that really shook my interest in house-sitting for D.

I broke the news to S. at an office Christmas party, after a few drinks had been served. She didn’t quite get my reasons – when I said, “I worry about things that happen at the house – probably overreact – because D.’s my boss,” she responded, “Oh, think of us as friends.” (Really…?) I should also mention that D. never mentioned my no longer staying there, even though I worked for him for quite a few more years. I think they had really thought they were doing me a favor – in some ways they were – and as everyone knows, it is awkward to refuse a favor.

Years later they offered their house for my wedding – such a nice gesture – but I deemed this scenario fraught with not-so-subterranean conflict (who would have really been in charge…) and refused, I hoped politely. We compromised at them hosting a wine shower (wine gifts instead of registry items) and that was a big success.

For the more than 10 years of my working for D., he and S. remembered me on birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Secretary’s Day, and Christmas. In some ways I was an extension of their family – the kids, the stepkids, and me. In recent years our paths cross once in a while, but mostly our relationship ended when I left the company in 2000. I miss him in some ways. Working so closely with a boss is almost like a marriage, and there were probably father-daughter elements too.

We used to have a saying in that office that dysfunctional females made the best admin assistants. It was a high-pressure, hierarchical, somewhat sexist environment – strong women said to hell to this and left soon after hire. Co-dependents worked long hours for minimal validation – we diligent bees would have been held up as the standard except that would have given us too much recognition and jeopardized the equation of subservience. Instead we were locked into trying to please, for which we received a slightly above-market salary and job security.

But anyway!, this blog post is about ants, not my slightly sadomasochistic secretarial nostalgia.

And, but…you know…

Sometimes when I had planned for a nice solitary weekend at the palatial manor of D. and S., one or more stepkids would show up. They were pleasant, but when you have planned to be alone, you want to be alone, and as with my own stepsiblings, I was all too aware that I had no grounds for complaint – they had plenty of right to be there. I would get all settled in with my Classic Coke, tortilla chips and Pop Tarts – and then one of the stepkids would show up and ask politely, do you mind if I use the phone for a while and sleep in the guest room, and can I have a Pop Tart? UH… It was like the way D. and S. always left a few dishes in the sink – I was under no obligation to wash them, but if I didn’t wash them I would stare at them my whole time there. HUH. Introverts get lonely but we don’t like sudden changes in our alone status, sigh.

One of my most important duties for D. was covering for him during his numerous vacations. He truly was always reachable, but it fell to me to decide what was important enough to reach him about. In assessing importance I had to respond to all calls. This was in the years before cell phones, and for odd-hour coverage it sometimes became obvious that I was staying at D.’s house. I always thought it was suspicious when I explained, “I'm house-sitting." Our company's then-COO, originally married with kids, ended up divorcing his first wife and marrying his admin, so I kind of felt I was being watched, even if that scenario was very, very, very! remote.

Before I get to ants, other animal stories…

I dimly remember something about a bird coming down the chimney into the formal living room, I think it soon died and/or I found someone to remove it before soot stained too much stuff. The flapping and squawking stressed me out of proportion on that one. Bird flying around the living room, valuable objects on the floor and walls…I must have blocked out the resolution.

Worse was the time I panicked at finding a strange, large dog domiciled on the upstairs patio and opened a gate to let it out, only later to find out stepson K. had parked it there on purpose. Ruh-roh! K. is one of those uber-nice guys but I sensed his strain that night…he had put the dog there on purpose but it was not really supposed to be there…he never said how/if he ever found it or where he moved it…one of the mysteries of that house.

Once in a while it was a bit pleasant watering the plants, feeling drizzles of water against my legs, listening to my Walkman. But usually it was a pain in the ass – an anxiety trigger, how much do I water so as not to burn or drown this once-green thing?, and of course an opportunity for mosquito bites – bare white legs, water, waning light…a blood-sucking picnic.

I hardly ever used the pool, but I liked looking at it – it was part of the undefined, undemanded, but understood package. When D. “forgot to tell me” it had been drained for cleaning before my stay, I was none too pleased.

Whatever complaints I had about the house-sitting I usually balance with my very guilty memory of the night I invited a friend over, and after we came back after a quick supper and parked in the front, I saw the front door was swinging open in the breeze. Wow. I had parked in the back, she arrived in the front, and I had not latched the front door. D. and S. maintained, at least in their first, smaller house, that their street had low crime because it was just a few blocks from impoverished apartments, and people won’t steal so close to home. (I think later on they did have an alarm system but were never obsessive about setting it.) So many things could have been carried out the door, vandalized, during that hour we were gone. Wow. Literally the door was OPEN. I still shudder to think of it. (Deep breath…) I didn’t even know that lady very well – she was our travel agent, worked on the same floor as our office…it was kind of an awkward evening, in the big picture not worth threatening my job for, may I say.

Well, the ant story will be anticlimactic now!!! But here goes…

On my last day of what I remember as my last stay I got started on laundry, thinking how much nicer to do it in a residence than a laundromat. However the few ants I had noticed during my first load grew to a wider, darker trail during my second trip to the laundry room, which was a kind of sunken converted-garage area on the way out from the kitchen.

I tried to ignore the ants but by load 3 I could not help but see they had increased to a vital cavalcade.

I called the most available, local stepson but he was laissez-faire about it – he told me about some bug stuff that if I even found the right bag on the garage shelf, didn’t seem toxic enough. Or it was for a nest, an ant hill…not a damn pioneer trail across the laundry room concrete floor!

With no external help and the prospect of another half-day and night in the house, I was forced to fall back on Sarah experience, which was, confusing the ants with chemical sprays. If it had worked in a couple of infested apartments, shouldn’t it should work here? I took the concept one step farther by spraying the visible ants with 409 and then wadding up those wet ants in toilet paper (I had learned from a friend whose dad retired from a paper company that Kleenex was not flushable, so I knew to avoid Kleenex) and flushing them down the downstairs toilet. I didn’t want any plumbing complications so I was careful to flush every few wads – the wads were rather big, to prevent my fingers touching dead wet ants. This mean a lot of flushing. I soon raised the toilet seat to be more business-like, feeling like a bulimic or at least a plumber, someone who wanted to get real close and personal to the flush.

This particular toilet had a padded beige seat that was a bit surreal anyway, and the process seemed Sisyphean – a word that’s defined by web resources as endless, toilsome, useless…Sisyphus being the legendary guy who kept trying to roll a stone up a hill.

I had gone right for the 409 spray - I knew where it was since I usually wiped the kitchen sink and counter first thing when I arrived. I didn’t always move the few dirty dishes right away – coffee cups and breakfast cereal bowls that showed the last home meal before whatever cruise or fancy trip D. and S. were going on – but I did wipe down the counter. It wasn’t obviously dirty, this was more of a territory-marking thing. They had regular cleaning ladies who supposedly dusted and disinfected all the surfaces, but this particular wipedown was more about ownership – they are gone, I am here!

Yeah, here in an ant-infested house. But eventually I had flushed all the visible ants, and the 409 that I was careful not to wipe up from the blue-gray painted concrete floor seemed to repel the not-there-yet ants. Whew. I checked again the next morning before I packed my stuff to go home, and I only saw a few ants, which I promptly wiped and flushed.


But something had been altered in the house-sitting equation. The many minutes, probably more than an hour, maybe two, that I spent flushing away ants had felt as long as an eternity and had in content too much resembled my nightmares. Yep, too many triggers of cleanliness obsession and too much pushing of childhood-angst discomfort buttons…dirt, bathroom stuff, insects, invasion…

For a paid job, maybe OK. For an unpaid job? Uh, no. I was still a fairly codependent administrative assistant at that point, but in terms of house-sitting if nothing else, I was mobilized to say, I don’t want to do this any more.

1 comment:

Jodette said...

Whoa. I can totally see the S & M aspects to secretarial work, but I had never thought of co-dependence. Very disturbing considering that's what I'm doing now. I consider myself a secretary. He considers me an "executive assistant".
Oh, well, you distracted me from the fact that this piece was about insects, so good for you. :)